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Book review: 'An Elegant Solution' full of strong writing, but falls flat

"AN ELEGANT SOLUTION," by Paul Robertson, Bethany House, $14.99, 427 pages (f)

For a book heavy with mathematics, “An Elegant Solution” surely creates more problems than it does solutions.

Written masterfully by Paul Robertson, “An Elegant Solution” tells the story of Leonhard Euler, an 18-year-old math prodigy from Basel who gets tangled up in a mess of murder and mathematics. Under the guidance of the Bernoulli family, Leonhard does his best to understand math and its place in the world — a world he finds to be surrounded by murder, deception and betrayal.

Despite its great writing, the book is problematic.

“An Elegant Solution” has too many issues for Leonhard to deal with. By the middle of the book, he’s trying to solve an incredibly challenging math problem, discover the reason for his mentor’s brother’s death and unravel the mystery of who killed a friend of his. And all of this is surrounded by the possibility of the plague penetrating Basel’s walls during an election season.

Some storylines interweave with others, but it’s certainly difficult to keep up with what’s happening. It’s written like a complicated math problem, with layer upon layer of complication. The ending wraps up the story, but it's dry and flat — nothing learned or gained from the book's conclusion.

Robertson’s writing is clear, concise and confident, and it tells a bit of the rich history of Switzerland and Europe. Readers are also given insight into how math plays a role in the real world, and whether people can control the circumstances in which they find themselves.

So while the themes and writing from the book are exceptional, the storylines and characters don't live up to these. Even Leonhard, the young prodigy and main character, isn’t sympathetic until the last few pages, where he’s finally given a chance to show what side he’s on and his true emotions. At points, he seems to be working with his friends for a larger cause, but then he takes a selfish turn. When he’s betrayed or messed with, he doesn’t take action but rather accepts what’s been done to him.

“An Elegant Solution” is cold, unforgiving and offers little empathy toward its characters. While the book is stacked high with Robertson’s wonderful vocabulary, the story doesn’t leave the reader with anything to think about afterward.

But the book shies away from anything too dark or grim for readers. It features few instances of physical violence, barely any bad language and absolutely no sexual situations. It’s fit for all readers looking to enrich their vocabulary.

Like a math problem, the book offers a problem — an incredibly complicated one — and ends clear, cut and dry.


Twitter: hscribner